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Fighting Traffic

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

Peter D. Norton
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Fighting Traffic
    Book Description:

    Before the advent of the automobile, users of city streets were diverse and included children at play and pedestrians at large. By 1930, most streets were primarily a motor thoroughfares where children did not belong and where pedestrians were condemned as "jaywalkers." In Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton argues that to accommodate automobiles, the American city required not only a physical change but also a social one: before the city could be reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where motorists belonged. It was not an evolution, he writes, but a bloody and sometimes violent revolution. Norton describes how street users struggled to define and redefine what streets were for. He examines developments in the crucial transitional years from the 1910s to the 1930s, uncovering a broad anti-automobile campaign that reviled motorists as "road hogs" or "speed demons" and cars as "juggernauts" or "death cars." He considers the perspectives of all users--pedestrians, police (who had to become "traffic cops"), street railways, downtown businesses, traffic engineers (who often saw cars as the problem, not the solution), and automobile promoters. He finds that pedestrians and parents campaigned in moral terms, fighting for "justice." Cities and downtown businesses tried to regulate traffic in the name of "efficiency." Automotive interest groups, meanwhile, legitimized their claim to the streets by invoking "freedom"--a rhetorical stance of particular power in the United States. Fighting Traffic offers a new look at both the origins of the automotive city in America and how social groups shape technological change.Peter D. Norton is Assistant Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28075-4
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction: What Are Streets For?
    (pp. 1-18)

    How did the American city become an automotive city? Why was much of the city physically destroyed and rebuilt to accommodate automobiles? The case presented in this book is that before the city could be physically reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where motorists unquestionably belonged.

    This social reconstruction was only one of several ways in which people tried to solve a new problem. New automobiles were incompatible with old street uses. Until the 1920s, under prevailing conceptions of the street, cars were at best uninvited guests. To many they were...

  5. I Justice

    • Introduction
      (pp. 19-20)

      Old street uses plus new automobiles equaled disaster. This fact transformed the city street between 1910 and 1930, but in ways few participants would have predicted. The three chapters that follow sketch reactions to this disaster from five social groups: parents, pedestrians, educators, various motoring interests (clubs, dealers and manufacturers), and police.

      Distinctions between pedestrians, parents, and educators are difficult to draw, so their voices are often mixed in chapters 1 and 2. These chapters are instead distinguished by a sequence of action and reaction. In chapter 1, pedestrians and parents attack motorists as destructive intruders in the street. In...

    • 1 Blood, Grief, and Anger
      (pp. 21-46)

      On a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1920, Leon Wartell was on a sidewalk, playing a ball game of some kind. The 9-year-old and his friends were in a residential Philadelphia neighborhood of row houses at Fifty-Third and Spruce Streets. A swerving car jumped the curb and rolled on top of Leon. In the back of an ambulance, on the way to Misericordia Hospital, Leon died.²

      In time, the grieving parents, Mr. and Mrs. Barnett Wartell, found some consolation in their dead son’s older brother, Howard. Howard grew into “an exceptionally gifted lad”: an athlete, a fine student, and...

    • 2 Police Traffic Regulation: Ex Chao Ordo
      (pp. 47-64)

      The blood of street traffic casualties was the most shocking effect of the new motor traffic in cities, but it was not the most common. Day in and day out, the new abundance of cars in cities meant traffic chaos. In the automobile’s first decade or two in the city, police struggled to restore order.

      By “chaos” most police meant something related to but distinct from congestion. Traffic engineers would later make term “traffic congestion” common, to refer to a kind of inefficiency characterized by high traffic density and poor traffic flow, with low average speeds. Police seldom spoke of...

    • 3 Whose Street? Joyriders versus Jaywalkers
      (pp. 65-102)

      Beneath the grief and anger of many safety reformers lay an old assumption: city streets, like city parks, were public spaces. Anyone could use them provided they did not unduly annoy or endanger others. Under this construction of the city street, even children at play could be legitimate street users, and even careful motorists were under suspicion. In the 1920s, however, the pressure of traffic casualties divided old allies. Some renewed their resolve to compel motorists to conform to the customs of the street as it had been, especially by limiting their speed. Others, more pragmatic, wanted to save lives...

  6. II Efficiency

    • Introduction
      (pp. 103-104)

      Tourists gazing at Niagara Falls from the safety of the railing do not all see the same thing. Some watch the American falls, others the more curvilinear Canadian. Some look on as the dark gray-green water heads horizontally for the precipice, and only hear the thunder of its descent; others see the vertical falls through white spray. Yet these tourists all share a common experience as observers of the falls at a safe distance. Their perspectives have more in common with each other than with the point of view of tourists aboard theMaid of the Mist.

      Like the tourists...

    • 4 Streets as Public Utilities
      (pp. 105-128)

      As they began their work in the 1910s and the 1920s, traffic engineers did not question the prevailing social construction of city streets as public space. Nevertheless, they attacked traffic problems from a new angle. Backed by downtown business associations, they first redefined their problem as a technical matter for experts. This was new; there was as yet no discipline or body of accepted knowledge on modern urban street traffic. Though they conceived of streets as public spaces, their model was less the busy city park than the overburdened city service or public utility. Drawing from their experience in other...

    • 5 Traffic Control
      (pp. 129-148)

      When city people talked about the new traffic problem, they did not all mean the same thing. Pedestrians complained of the automobile’s trespass upon their rights. Parents dreaded the new threat to their children’s safety. Police struggled to restore disrupted order. Despite their diverse perspectives, however, these groups shared a kind of conservatism that attached them to long-standing constructions of the city street. In the automobile they saw a threat to established customs. Upholding time-honored ways, these groups tended to perceive the automobile’s intrusions as threats to justice.

      Downtown business leaders also saw threats in the new traffic problems, but...

    • 6 Traffic Efficiency versus Motor Freedom
      (pp. 149-172)

      Through the 1920s, professional traffic control measures joined and partly displaced police traffic regulation. Wherever congestion squeezed commerce, surveys, “no parking,” coordinated signals, and other professional measures soon followed. Traffic lights replaced cornermen at big-city intersections and even spread to small-town crossroads. The standard, professionally timed traffic light slowly displaced silent policemen in all their variety. By 1938, the sociologist Louis Wirth could name “the clock and the traffic signal” as the two symbols “of the basis of our social order in the urban world.”² As tokens of urban progressivism, traffic lights so enamored small-city boosters that engineers had to...

  7. III Freedom

    • Introduction
      (pp. 173-174)

      In the typical quest story of folklore, the hero begins as a naive youth, ignorant of his destiny and sometimes even of his own name. Often through a threat or a disaster, he learns of his higher purpose. With this painful discovery he first sees his true mission, finds his courage, and sets out to do battle.

      Automotive interest groups discovered their destiny in the 1920s. Lacking self-awareness in 1920, they joined with chambers of commerce and local safety councils to fight accidents and congestion on the terms of Safety First and efficiency. In 1923 and 1924, looming threats to...

    • 7 The Commodification of Streets
      (pp. 175-206)

      In 1925 the leading textbook in professional traffic control advised engineers to favor efficient and restrict inefficient modes and to consider expensive transportation facilities only as a last resort. In 1941 the advice in the leading traffic engineering textbook was different: “If people prefer to drive downtown and can afford it, then facilities must be built for them up to their ability to pay. The choice of mode of travel is their own; they cannot be forced to change on the strength of arguments of efficiency or economy.”² The position set forth in the second book was already old news;...

    • 8 Traffic Safety for the Motor Age
      (pp. 207-242)

      If an automobile injured or killed a pedestrian, the motorist was responsible. This was the presumptive conclusion under traditional perceptions of the city street as a public space. This perspective was shared to varying degrees by the essentially conservative social groups of pedestrians, parents, police, and judges. It was also a hindrance to the full development of the automobile as an urban transportation mode. By 1920, with commonsense appeals to “safety first,” pedestrians were given some responsibility for their own safety as a practical matter. But because the allocation of responsibility in principle was little changed, some found Safety First...

    • 9 The Dawn of the Motor Age
      (pp. 243-254)

      In 1930, across a channel called Arthur Kill from Staten Island, New Jersey’s state highway engineers finished the “Clover Leaf,” the first complete highway interchange of its kind.³ It was a new kind of traffic structure, and it heralded the dawn of a new way to fight traffic.

      The new highway engineers defied the most cherished principles of the traffic control engineers of the 1920s. Facilities like this interchange were expensive, and they served the mode traffic engineers had singled out as the least efficient and the least equitable. Yet by the time New Jersey began to build it, traffic...

  8. Conclusion: History, Technology, and the Dawn of the Motor Age
    (pp. 255-262)

    Motordom socially reconstructed city streets as motor thoroughfares—places where cars preeminently belong. Their success was never total, for society eludes those who would master it. Nevertheless, motordom’s struggle and relative success reveal much about how social groups succeed or fail at remaking the world to suit their needs.

    I hope this book demonstrates the benefits of combining theoretical and empirical work to scholarship of both kinds. In 1996 Trevor Pinch observed that “the combination of detailed empirical research with growing theoretical sophistication about science and technology offers genuine new insights into technical change.”² Yet empirical historians still fault theoreticians...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 263-378)
  10. Series List
    (pp. 379-382)
  11. Index
    (pp. 383-396)